La history of beer is a fascinating journey through very different cultures and eras. With a history spanning more than 7,000 years, beer is not only one of the oldest alcoholic beverages in the world, it is also one of the earliest evidence of human civilisation. Its origins can be traced back to Mesopotamiaor in that historical region of the Ancient Near Easthome to flourishing civilisations such as the Sumerians, Assyrians and Babylonians, all of whom were regular consumers of beer. However, it was in Ancient Egypt that beer took on the central role that has rebounded to the present day, becoming a symbol of universal sociality in different cultures.

Beer in antiquity

The history of beer dates back to at least 5,000 B.C. in Mesopotamia. The ancient Sumerians produced a primitive form of beer, which their Babylonian successors perfected through a greater knowledge of fermentation techniques. For the Ancient Egyptians, beer was a fundamental element with strong social, cultural and religious significance and therefore integrated into almost all aspects of daily life. It seems that in Mesopotamia there were more than 20 types of beer with very different tastes and flavours.

Beer in the Sumerian civilisation

The Sumerians were the first urban society in history who inhabited southern Mesopotamia (i.e. part of present-day Iraq) between 3,000 and 2,000 BC. For this people, beer, called sikaru, had such a deep cultural, religious and social significance that it was consumed daily by all social classes. Sumerian beer was brewed from bear that was first made into a kind of bread - the bappir - then fermented in water. Ibappir was more than just an ingredient in beer as it was both marketed for consumption and used to pay for goods. More than a bread, it should be called a biscuit as it was baked twice to improve its preservation properties. Bear was mainly used for its production, but other grains were also added to improve the taste and fermentation properties of the beer. Afterwards, the bappir was crumbled and mixed with water, dates and honey to increase the fermentation power due to the sugars they contained, which were then converted into alcohol.

Bappir is mentioned in numerous ancient texts including the Hymn to Ninkasi, a poem dedicated to the Sumerian goddess of beer. The very existence of a Sumerian beer goddess says much about the importance of beer in this civilisation.

Beer in Babylonian civilisation

The Babylonians can be considered the direct heirs of the Sumerians and so it is not surprising that beer retained a central role in their society to the point of appearing in the famous Code of Hammurabi, a set of laws that included regulations dedicated to the production, sale and serving of beer, as well as punishments for those who did not comply with these regulations.

In Babylonian civilisation, beer was not only an everyday drink, but a beverage with profound cultural, social and religious meanings. It was indeed an integral part of rituals and offerings to deities, but also a valuable commodity used both for trade and for payments to workers in monumental works such as city temples. Serving places, which could be described as taverns ante litteram, were of great importance in Babylonian society.

Beer was also an essential part of the diet as its consumption offered greater security than water, which could often be contaminated. The introduction of what today might be called brewing styles gave a variety of tastes and made Babylonian beer palatable to most people. 

Beer in Ancient Egypt

Beer - called 'zythum' or 'heqet' - played a crucial role in Ancient Egyptian society and not only because it was a daily drink, accessible to all social classes, from pharaohs to workers. As was the case in other civilisations, it was more nutritious and safer than untreated water (it must be remembered that people drank water from the River Nile) and was therefore also given to children to drink. Thanks to their extraordinary knowledge, they further perfected the fermentation process and created what today could be considered mother yeast. As for the other production steps, the process was similar to Sumerian and Babylonian ones.

For the Egyptians, beer also had medical properties and was so important that it was born here the first beer festivals: just like today, they were moments of conviviality and sharing.

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When beer arrived in Europe

The expansion into Europe was a historical process lasting several centuries, with beer gradually becoming one of the most popular beverages on the continent. The Celts and Germans adopted and adapted Mesopotamian techniques to create a beverage that satisfied the European palate and production requirements.

Beer in Ancient Greece

In ancient Greece, beer - called zythos - had a different status and popularity than in Mesopotamian civilisations, and here the predominant and most popular alcoholic beverage was wine. Undoubtedly also due to the geographical location that allowed vines to grow, beer was mostly consumed by the poor in certain regions who could not afford the more expensive wine.

Beer is mentioned in some Greek literary sources, but often in a context that emphasises its strangeness or its association with non-Greek (and therefore barbarian) cultures. The preference of the Greeks - a people respected for their flourishing civilisation - for wine was so marked that it also influenced the other cultures with which they came into contact, including the Roman.

Beer in ancient Rome

In ancient Rome, beer - called cervisia or zythum - had a very different status and role than it had in the cultures of Northern Europe or Mesopotamia. Although it was widespread and available, beer did not have the same prestige as wine, which was the most widely consumed and appreciated alcoholic beverage by the Romans and for the administration of which there were precise rules. Not only that: beer was synonymous with incivility, with barbarians, and therefore the most cultured Romans did not consume it.

Its impact in Roman culture, therefore, was rather limited compared to its role in other ancient civilisations. The predominance of wine, together with a certain cultural stigmatisation of beer, made its presence less important in Roman daily life and no religious practices associated with this drink are known.

Beer in the Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages, then, beer became a common drink in the various states, thanks also to the monasteries, which, just as happened with wine, were crucial in improving its quality, variety and diffusion. Indeed, the monks not only perfected techniques, but also started producing a large number of brewing styles and were instrumental in the introduction of hops, today the basic ingredient for making beer. Until then beer was flavoured with medicinal herbs, spices, berries, roots and barks.

The 16th century and the first production laws

The 16th century was pivotal for the progress of beer production as it passed through discipline and protection. The German Beer Purity Law - the Reinheitsgebot - was one of the oldest known food regulations in the world and the fact that it was entirely dedicated to beer production says much about the importance of this beverage in Europe. It stipulated that beer could only be made from water, barley and hops. The mention of yeast, today essential for fermentation, is missing because its existence and role were not yet known. At the time, yeast was introduced naturally or through techniques that were part of the brewing tradition. Promulgated in 1487 in the city of Munich and extended to the whole of Bavaria on 23 April 1516 by Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria, this law set specific standards for the production of local beer with the aim of guaranteeing its quality.

Reinheitsgebot beer stamp

Beer in the Industrial Revolution

With the Industrial Revolution, beer production underwent significant transformations. The introduction of industrial methods, such as refrigeration and pasteurisation, improved storage and distribution. This led to large-scale production, the emergence of large breweries and its global spread.

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Beer in the 20th and 21st Century

In the 20th century, the world witnessed a wave of consolidation among brewers, leading to the emergence of large brewing conglomerates. However, towards the end of the century and the beginning of the 21st, there was a renewed interest in craft beers. This movement emphasised quality, traditional brewing methods and experimentation with new flavours and styles.

A journey through the centuries

Beer is a reflection of human history and this makes it a protagonist in the history of various civilisations. Its evolution from a simple fermented beverage of ancient civilisations to a global beverage loved in all cultures underlines its enduring impact and role in society. It continues to be a bridge between the past and the present, uniting people of all ages through a taste and tradition accessible to all.

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